Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Kumar of Bhawal: Partha Chatterjee's 'A Princely Imposter?' & theories of identity

Recent developments in the comment pages of this blog got me thinking about a book I read last year by Partha Chatterjee, A Princely Imposter? The Strange And Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal ('Kumar' means 'prince'). The chain of connection is extremely slim, but perhaps this particular 'case of identity' might be found entertaining and interesting nonetheless.

This is an extremely unusual book, in part because its author had shown no signs of writing anything like it in earlier books like Nationalist Discourse and the Colonial World or The Nation and Its Fragments. Both of those books are densely theoretical in nature, favoring questions of historical method (historiography) over the simple narration of history. Through them, and through his many important essays, Partha Chatterjee established a reputation as one of the most formidable theorists of the subaltern studies school of historiography, whose other prominent members include people like Sumit Sarkar, Ranajit Guha, Gyan Prakash, Gyan Pandey, and even, for a brief time, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The dominant method of this school of historians in its early days in the 1970s was a kind of Marxism heavily influenced by French theory (poststructuralism), as well as the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (indeed, the word "subaltern" comes from Gramsci's use of it in his Prison Notebooks). Of course, these historians also practiced good research methods, including extensive primary source work. Chatterjee's famous argument in Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World -- A Derivative Discourse? uses its fair share of Gramsci and Todorov, but his readings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadhyay), Gandhi, and Nehru are extensively footnoted, and work with a wide array of primary materials that other historians had overlooked. In short, you can dislike the theoretical component, but you will probably learn a lot about the history of Indian nationalism from this early book of Chatterjee's.

None of this prepared me for Chatterjee's A Princely Imposter, however. This new book is a case study of an event that had been completely obscure to me, from a part of Bengal about which I knew nothing. In 1909, Ramendra Narayan, the second Kumar of Bhawal, a small principality near Dhaka (then spelled as Dacca), was thought to have died suddenly while recuperating from syphilis in Darjeeling. His family were all at home in Jaidebpur, and none of them were present at his death. A cremation also took place before they could reach Darjeeling. There were several eyewitnesses, including both Indian and English doctors, who signed off on the death certificate. The death of the kumar was particularly hard on the Bhawal zamindar (estate), because it left the estate without male heirs, and in danger of being given over to British control.

Doubts about his death circulated for years, but they reached a breaking point in 1921, when a dreadlocked, Hindi-speaking sanyasi (ascetic) showed up in Dhaka who bore a striking resemblance to the supposedly deceased kumar. Members of the Narayan family went to see the sanyasi, and eventually they invited him to their house. He broke into tears upon seeing a photo of the deceased prince, and after two weeks suddenly made the announcement that he was himself Ramendra Narayan, kumar of Bhawal. He claimed he had fallen unconscious after receiving a dose of medication, and woken up some time later in the jungle, in the company of a sadhu who then took care of him. He had spent the next 12 years wandering northern India. The British were extremely skeptical, and some members of the family (including the Kumar's wife, Bibabhati) flatly denied this to be the case after meeting him. But most of the family, including his sisters and mother, enthusiastically supported his claim.

Much of Chatterjee's book is dedicated to working out the details of whether this was or was not the same person (he gives no definitive answer), and he follows in detail the epic court battles over the question of the sanyasi's identity. Over the course of the book, one learns a great many things about late colonial India: the economic and political underpinnings of princely estates like Bhawal; the interactions amongst the Indian aristocracy, the emerging middle Bengali classes, or bhadralok, and the British; and the relations between urban centers like Calcutta and Dhaka and more rural areas, to name just a few. But the core of the book centers around this question: What evidence is definitive? In a pre-DNA era, how can we objectively ascertain the continuity of identity? As the case becomes more and more complicated (I haven't even scratched the surface of the complexity here), Chatterjee does finally begin to introduce some theoretical and philosophical arguments to try and respond. It is possible to read this book and skip the philosophical sections -- Chatterjee has structured the book as a whole to be accessible and readable (perhaps for the first time).

But I'm a person who enjoys questions of theory and philosophy, so for me these sections are fascinating. Two of the key philosophers Chatterjee mentions are Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit. Here is a brief summary of the debate between two recent schools of thought on the question of the nature of the self, groups Chatterjee characterizes as the reductionists and the nonreductionists:

The reductionists basically uphold some version of the physical and/or psychological criteria we have described before. They maintain, in other words, that personal identity involves the continued physical existence of enough of the brain and/or psychological continuity with the right kind of cause. Parfit . . . prefers to modify this position by holding that any cause is sufficient. In contrast, nonreductionists do not accept that personal identity can be reduced to certain facts about physical or psychological continuity. They insist that the identity of a person must involve a further fact. This could be a separate entity from his or her brain and body, such as a Cartesian spiritual substance, for instance, or a separate physical entity not yet recognized by science, or at the very least, something beyond the sum total of elements comprising the body and brain of the person.
Parfit attempts to show that no matter how carefully we define physical and psychological continuity, it is always possible to imagine situations in which personal identity will be indeterminate and undecidable according to the reductionist criteria. He concludes from this that what matters is not personal identity bu continuity of a person in some form, that is, the person's survival. Thus, if there was some technology that could record the exact state of all of the cells of my body and brain and reproduce those cells in an exact duplicate of me, that duplicate would be exactly like me both physically and pyschologically, with an exactly similar body and with the same memories and personality traits. Now, if it was suggested to me that the original 'I' be destroyed and the duplicate survive, would I mind? Parfit argues that nothing would be lost if that was to happen. (125)

In the pages that follow in Chatterjee's book, this question gets pretty mind-boggling. Eventually, he argues that, even if he was not biologically the same person, the sanyasi was able to establish a kind of continuity of identity for his family and society. He claimed the memories the Kumar would have had, thus achieving a kind of duplication that in many ways resembles Parfit's hypothetical situation.

Oh, and by the way, at the end of 25 years of trials, appeals, and appeals of appeals, during which time the sanyasi was forbidden from claiming the privileges of status, the Indian high court (comprised primarily of English judges, with one Indian judge) made a final decision. They decided that the sanyasi was in fact the very same Ramendra Narayan, the Kumar of Bhawal. He died of a stroke a few days after the decision -- oh well.